What Collaboration Looks Like At Satellite Collective

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Migrant work on a fruit orchard is what initially drew Maria to Michigan. She was a pious woman. But when she planted her own garden, Maria’s identity began to shift from the church, discovering more enlightenment in nurturing vegetation than in scripture.

Maria is now 90. Her story and home where her garden once thrived is the inspiration for a new short film by Satellite Collective, a New York-based interdisciplinary arts nonprofit. The film is called Gran Jericho, and features New York City Ballet dancers Lauren King and Marika Anderson. It debuts at 92Y in Manhattan Friday through Sunday — along with three other interdisciplinary works.

Gran Jericho reflects the collaborative nature of Satellite Collective, combining film, music, dance, and vocal work.

{DIYdancer} spoke with three of the film’s collaborators: Satellite Collective artistic director and filmmaker Lora Robertson; executive director Kevin Draper, who wrote the libretto for the film; and Stelth Ulvang, who plays with popular indie rock band The Lumineers and scored Grand Jericho.

Here are excerpts of their conversation, which have been edited for clarity and brevity:

On the film’s narrative and origins:

Kevin: The collective has committed to short films over the last couple of years, so we have a continuous story that’s been told in three previous films, which were all done stop-motion animation with Lora, the filmmaker. We took a different step with this film. It’s live-action film.

Lora: I still incorporated some small moments of stop-motion into the live-action. But it’s really our focus this year to work with dancers from New York City Ballet. We brought the dancers out to Michigan, to the site where I’ve been producing installation and film for the past year. I’ve been working with SiTE:LAB, [an organization revitalizing neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Mich. through art]. I was assigned a house on site, which was completely filled with garbage and treasures, and needed to be excavated for three months before I finally got to the bottom of the space.

A woman named Maria lived there for a good chunk of her life. She’s still alive — she’s 90-years-old. She raised her family there. So she was part of this community for a long, long time and she was a very religious woman. But there was a point in her life where she broke away from the church and her community and really found more satisfaction in planting her own garden. I spent a year just finding out about this woman and her story, producing work in response to it. And then Kevin kind of took over from that point and started writing the libretto for this film. At that point, we brought in the dancers from New York City Ballet, and really felt we wanted to work with Stelth on the score. He’s definitely the right choice for this project.

{Dd} I’m curious, the continuous story that’s spread out over these short films, are they all centered around the story of Maria? Or is her story a chapter in the bigger picture?

Lora: These short films are a series that are connected to each other. But Maria’s story, I think it stands on its own as well. You really don’t need to see the other films to understand this one.

Kevin: The first trio of films was focused on addressing, we’ll say, the intimate spaces in life when you’re surrounded by random technology, including oil fires and crashing space shuttles. Grand Jericho is definitely a new direction for us.  And I have to say that when Lora said give me a story about Maria, I was like, “Well, I don’t know Maria. She’s this 90-year-old Hispanic woman. How in the world am I going to get inside of that?” But we started work on the basic story, which was the fact that she may have learned more from her garden than from scripture.

On the highs and lows of collaboration:

Stelth: We’re all maybe picturing it different: like what the orchard looks like, and what we know from her past. And that’s, I think, the hardest part about trying to create a collaboration — lining up these stories. It’s also the beautiful part — producing different ideas from the same train of thought. We almost just started with a bit of a word game, a kind of train of thought of some ideas and images that were popping up. I hadn’t done this kind of scoring myself, but I really like some of the old minimalist composers and films. I started working on a few themes surrounding this and then sending those ideas back and forth.

{Dd} And you had to collaborate remotely, correct?

Stelth: I’m was traveling then. I play with The Lumineers. I play piano and accordion. Our album just released, so we’ve been traveling. Basically, I try just sitting down at a piano everyday, but then trying to find pianos in spots throughout Europe is hard. You find a piano in a hotel lobby. You get about 15 minutes of playing maybe, before you get kicked out.

{Dd} And how long have you been working on the score?

Stelth: Since February.

Kevin: We started our conversations in January. And music was delivered to Lora and to me during the time that we were doing the first filming. The music did have the feel of early film. That really had an impact on some of the choices we made in terms of the palette of the film and the coloration. And steering it more towards something that evokes, not a talkie, but an early film.

Lora: I’m always looking to the old processes of filmmaking and photography. And so I’m always really drawn to collaborators that have that same sense of craft. I think in that way we understand each other.

On what appeals to them about incorporating dance or movement to tell a story:

Lora: Well, it’s kind of a quiet story. I mean it’s this woman, who didn’t get much attention throughout her entire life. But I find her heroic. And so that’s where dance comes in. It’s kind of a sensitive way of telling a story. But it can also be a lot of grand gesture and movement at the same time to emphasize her triumphs even though they may have been small.

Kevin: I’ll answer the question by making a kind of opposite statement. So of course dance film is exploding all over the place. Everyone is starting to use it for branding. It’s a way to extend the work. But I think that in the dance world, the people who are experimenting with that, are just beginning to treat it more like actual film and deal with the narrative aspect of what they’re doing. It’s not just reifying a stage performance or in a way to get a very nice trailer. And I don’t mean that as a critique. I think if you look at the trailers that were built for The Most Incredible Thing choreographed by Justin Peck, you can see how, because that’s a narrative ballet, it comes through in the short film. I still think there’s a lot of room there for a real film to be made. So we call it a dance film, but the reality is there’s very little dance. There’s a lot of movement in it, but it’s not strictly speaking a dance piece.

When the film is an inspiration to the choreographers, then it finds its way into their dance work. We think that over time, we can explore the conventions of film and narrative storytelling, and use film in the same way that we’ve been using the stage, which is basically as a really good reason to get all kinds of artists together to collaborate.

We chose the dancers from City Ballet because we wanted their language, we wanted their dance language. Even though we weren’t choreographing the piece, we wanted that particular Balanchine language and movement to be available. That’s what you see in the film.

Lora: Just to continue that thought, we also wanted to put them inside of that opportunity where they’re not being strictly choreographed on. But they really get to show more of an expression that they often don’t get to in the work they do at New York City Ballet or with other choreographers. And we were very surprised. They had a lot to say on collaboration and art. They have very strong opinions. I look forward to working with them a lot more because it’s kind of nice to see them be able to break out of those restraints.

{Dd} Yeah, in the dance world, traditionally, collaboration can look very different than other art forms.

Lora: Yes, it’s rigid, especially the place that they’re coming from. Lots of rules and discipline. So I think this was a nice departure for them.

Kevin: One of the reasons we’re exploring film is the visual artist has a more natural lead role in the collaboration — rather than a choreographer. And we think that will produce very different works. So we’re doing both now: dance and film. We’ll continue to support dance, but we were looking for a medium that would still let us bring in people like Stelth and others — where it was more logical that the lead was being held by a visual artist and not by a choreographer.

Lora: In that sense, it is really a true collaboration because, in this formula, it evens the playing field for all of the artists to contribute as equals. There’s not just one person saying, ‘OK this is what it’s supposed to look like. This is what I want.’ Everyone is really contributing in a substantial way, which is the mission of our organization.

{Dd} And Stelth, what about you?

Stelth:  There’s a funny quote that keeps popping into my head, that I think is terrible and completely out of context — and maybe I shouldn’t say it. But it goes: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s almost with the persuasion to not talk about music. Why would you do that? You could just play the music. But also, for someone who doesn’t know music, that would be the best way to do it. And similarly, for someone who doesn’t know architecture, you can break it down to these simple movements. And with this project,  it just seems we can all start from a spot we can understand. Even with people who don’t know dance, you understand all these things because people have been moving before they were even talking.

Satellite Collective presents four new interdisciplinary works, including Grand Jericho, at 92Y in Manhattan Friday through Sunday.

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